Tuesday, June 02, 2009

James Church's Hidden Moon

I read James Church's Hidden Moon, from a mystery series set in North Korea. Church is the pseudonym of a " Western intelligence officer" who has spent years in Asia and has been to North Korea some 30 times.

His main character is Inspector O, who works for the Ministry of People's Security, and who has the strange habit of sanding different types of wood to relax (and he always describes the personality of each type). This novel beings with a bank robbery, the first ever in Pyongyang, and unfolds from there, leading to murder and political intrigue, including someone from Scotland.

What makes these mysteries so interesting is that Church clearly feels a lot of empathy for North Korea--this is especially apparent in the fact that Inspector O, despite his grumbling, has no interest in leaving. What high-ups (the "Center") want is always unknown, and many cases go unsolved by order of higher authorities--they even make up a term, "muscular resonance," to put in the paperwork for bodies that appear for political reasons. Despite all this, North Korea is his home.

That sympathy allows Church to explore North Korean realities in a nuanced manner. The bureaucratic infighting is intense, yet bizarrely silent:

Silence never meant quiet, not on these sorts of cases. It meant a frantic, ferocious struggle in officers I never visited, on phones I never called, in places I had no wish ever to see (p. 152).

Further, you have to be careful about what you say:

Speaking of a nonperson who had died in a nonevent wasn't wise (p. 80).

It even gets down to ground level, as Inspector O sneaks into the back door of his apartment building to avoid the block community discussion about who wasn't doing their fair share in the apartment's vegetable garden.

In short, Church is very successful in creating a particular mood of suspicion, all the while laced with many different examples of camaraderie. Life is difficult in North Korea, but it is not entirely hopeless. It is worth reading for that mood, but the story is also good, much easier to follow than A Corpse in the Koryo. But, fittingly for North Korea, some things remain unknown and unresolved--do not look for every story thread to be nicely tied up.


Anonymous,  3:34 PM  

Thanks for recommending. I found A Corpse in the Koryo (book you mentioned, not a real corpse). It's not too hard to follow, fun, and darkly funny, and I feel like I have a better understanding of North Korea.

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